EMERSON, Ga. – The inaugural season for the new state-of-the-art Perfect Game Park South at LakePoint complex just wouldn’t be quite complete without a home run derby, which is what went down on Thursday night to kick off the week-long 12u BCS Finals played at the East Cobb Complex.
For at least one night, a group of 12-year-old kids got to experience the game on the big field they hope to soon be playing on at a competitive level. The scene was set with the all-turf fields complete with technologically advanced scoreboards and, of course, an easily-constructible fence generously provided to Perfect Game by the folks at Better Baseball. The fence measured at 210-ft down the lines and 250-ft to center field.
“They were awesome,” home run derby champion Nolan McLean said about the fields. “They were the best fields I have ever stepped foot on.”
“It’s beautiful,” added West Raleigh 12u assistant coach and McLean’s derby pitcher Joe Willadsen. “I was teasing with one of the coaches saying, ‘you know what I don’t like about this?’ I paused for a couple minutes and said, ‘I can’t find anything.’ It’s a very nice park. I wish we were up there playing today.”
The environment served as extra motivation for the 24 contestants to swing out of their shoes and see how far they can hit one out at LakePoint.
“It was amazing how many of the kids came close to hitting the ball out of the big field,” said Perfect Game scout Mark Mathison. The kids loved it. We had quite a few go out towards center. Once they were done hitting they would go out to the outfield and shag fly balls. All of them were asking if they could keep playing because they all had a blast.”
In front of about 250 supporters who came out to watch the 24 contestants participate in the derby, the kids put on a show. In fact, Mathison recalled a few almost leaving the big fence, which measure 325-ft down the lines and 385-ft to center field.
“All of the kids that were hitting had people there supporting them so everybody was hootin’ and hollerin’ every time a ball went out,” Mathison said. “There were a few that hit the top of the home run derby fence and trickled over or trickled back in, so it was fun to watch.”
Most of the fireworks were provided by Nolan McLean, Bryce Thompson, and Joseph Almestica, who were the three finalists. McLean finished the first round with eight home runs, while Thompson and Almestica each connected for seven.
“It was pretty cool,” said McLean. “Once you stepped up to the batter’s box you get kind of nervous, but once you start hitting your first time around you kind of get in a groove and it gets easier and easier.”
His thrower, assistant coach Willadsen, was familiar with McLean and said he is typically the batting practice arm for his players, but this was quite different.
“In that situation it was a lot harder,” said Willadsen. “Some of the coaches were kidding me wondering who was more nervous, he or I. it was probably me.”
In Mathison’s opinion, Almestica put on the most impressive power display, hitting the ball off the big fence three times throughout the contest.
“Almestica is the one that hit the furthest,” said Mathison. “I think he just lost steam going into the championship round.”
It was McLean who put five balls over the fence in the championship round to capture the title of 12u BCS Finals Home Run Derby Champion.
“He hit really well,” Willadsen said. “He was in a groove. He was just asking me to throw it high and inside. I think some of the guys on the team were kidding me that I was trying to hit him. He was in a groove. A lot of times he just hit it and I didn’t have to look. I knew it was gone.”
Willadsen felt the home run derby was the perfect way for the kids to start off a tournament, especially one of the more important tournaments 12u travel baseball has.
“I think what they did last night was like an icebreaker,” said Willadsen. “It got the kids loose. It got them kind of mingling with one another. They have a little fun with it, but I also think it’s more about breaking the ice as the tournament gets started.”
McLean, representing his West Raleigh 12u team, took home the crown over Puerto Rican ballplayer Joseph Almestica, and 6-4-3 DP Cougars representative Bryce Thompson. Although, it’s Almestica who has arguably the biggest home run out of the three when he connected for a walk-off grandslam in the 11u PG Super25 Caribbean Regional Championship.
While that helped put Almestica and his Puerto Rican Los Angels de Cayey on the map, Willadsen hopes McLean’s win can do the same for his West Raleigh 12u club.
“A lot of people probably hadn’t heard much about West Raleigh coming from North Carolina, so it kind of put our name out there a little bit,” said Willadsen. “We have a good group of kids, so I’m hoping for a good tournament with these kids this weekend.”
Just before the home run derby, the 12u players got to show off their fleet feet in the fastest man competition. Players would run, two at a time, a 40-yard dash in the outfield at the LakePoint Complex. Great speed, an underrated skill in baseball, was on display Thursday evening at the competition. It was Team Elite Silver's Khalil Wilcox who took home the title of 'fastest man' by running a 5.17-second 40-yard dash. He will surely be one to watch one the bases.
The first ever home run derby competition and fastest man contest at Perfect Game Park South at LakePoint couldn’t have gone better. A great way to kick off the 12u BCS Finals with the bar set high, the excitement should only continue to build.